With Halloween rapidly approaching I thought it would be fun to take myself off on a wander around some of the most haunted spots in the West End of London.
A short walk from St James’s Park underground station and I find myself in Queen Anne’s Gate, architecturally in my opinion one of London’s finest streets. About half way along is a statue of Queen Anne herself who died on August 1st, 1714. Legend has it that on the stroke of midnight on the anniversary of her death the statue climbs down from its pedestal and walks up and down the street three times.
Just around the corner off Dartmouth Street are the eerily quiet Cockpit Steps. From the bottom of the steps a headless lady is often seen moving across the pavement and drifting over the road in the direction of St James’s Park. In January 1804, The Times newspaper ran a story of two Coldstream Guards who were so frightened by her that they were hospitalised for a considerable time. Also late one night in 1972 a motorist collided with a lamppost when he swerved to avoid a woman in a red dress who suddenly appeared before him. That mystery has never been solved.
Directly opposite me is St James’s Park. Originally laid out for James I in 1603, re-landscaped for Charles II in 1660 and changed again to the park we see today in 1827 by John Nash.
It is said that a headless woman is sometimes in the area of the lake, rising slowly from the dark waters she drifts across the surface until she reaches land from where she breaks into a frenzied run, arms flailing wildly. She runs towards the bushes and vanishes. The lady is thought to have been the wife of a sergeant in the guard who murdered her in the 1780’s. He hacked off her head, buried it in a secret location and then threw her body into the lake.
Leaving the park at the opposite side I walk onto The Mall and into Stable Yard Road. At the gates I look through to get a glimpse of the house built in 1825 for the Duke of Clarence who later became King William IV. Clarence House as it’s known today is home to Prince Charles and his wife the Duchess of Cornwall.
Sonia Marsh was a clerk who was working alone in the house one Saturday afternoon. She had an uneasy feeling that something was watching her, looking into the darkness she saw a greyish, smoky, triangular mass coming towards her in a bobbing motion. Terrified she grabbed her coat and ran from the building. Back at work on the Monday morning she mentioned what had happened to a colleague, she told her it was probably the Old Duke of Connaught, the third son of Queen Victoria who lived at Clarence House from 1900 until his death in 1942.
Back on The Mall I’m looking at one of the most famous buildings in London, Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s London residence. Built in 1703 for John Sheffield, the first Duke of Buckingham it was then sold to George III, the first monarch to own it. He began a restoration that continued through the reigns of George IV and William IV until Queen Victoria moved in in 1837.
Before the palace a priory stood on the site surrounded by marshland. It is the ghost of a monk who died in the monastery’s punishment cell that apparently haunts the palace. The story goes that he always appears on Christmas Day, on the terrace overlooking the gardens at the back of the building. Bound in heavy chains and dressed in brown he moves backwards and forwards along the terrace before disappearing for another year.
There is also a second ghost at the palace dating from the reign of Edward VII. Major John Gwynne, the king’s private secretary, was involved in a scandalous divorce that meant he was shunned by polite society. One night he retired to his first floor office and blew his brains out with a revolver. Staff working in the vicinity have occasionally heard a gun firing in the room where the suicide occurred.
Walking up the pathway that runs alongside Green Park is an eerie experience on the best of days, although it’s busy it always has a sense of gloom about it. This gloom possibly comes from the fact that the park is reputed to have been the burial ground for the nearby leper’s hospital of St James’s. It’s also said to be the reason for the lack of flowers. One particular tree up this path has been dubbed by park keepers “the tree of death”. No birds sing from its branches and dogs avoid it, it’s also known for the high number of suicides that have been hanging from its branches. People say that a throaty gurgling chuckle can sometimes be heard from inside the tree and others have caught glimpses of a tall, shadowy figure that stands beside the tree, pointing at them.
A little way up is the narrow Milkmaid’s Passage, named after the maids who would carry fresh milk along here to the dairy of St James’s Palace when this was still a rural area.
St James’s Palace was built by Henry VIII and has remained one of the principle residences of the Kings and Queens of England for more than 300 years. One of its most famous hauntings dates from the first half of the 19th century. On May 31st, 1810, in the early hours of the morning, Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland and brother to George IV and William IV, was woken from a deep sleep at around 2:30am, by what he first thought was a bat in his chamber. He was then subjected to a ferocious attack, a sharp bladed weapon slashed at his nightcap and gown. Attempting to deflect the blows, his hands and wrists were cut, desperately he screamed for help. A valet called Cornelius Neale rushed to help and found the Duke’s regimental sabre, covered in blood, lying on the floor by the door.
Whilst being treated by a doctor, Cumberland asked for his other valet, Joseph Sellis to be sent for. Two servants went to wake hime, but as they approached his room they were startled by a strange gurgling sound from within it. Opening the door they found Sellis lying dead, his throat cut back to the spine and his head almost severed from his body. It was concluded in a subsequent inquest that for reasons unknown the dead valet had attempted to murder his master, and in remorse had committed suicide.
Court gossip took a different view, and talk of a cover up was rife. Rumours swirled that Cumberland had, infant, murdered Sellis. Sellis’s hands were found to be clean and there was bloodstained water in his wash basin. Several versions of what had really happened were circulating. One maintained that Sellis had found the Duke in bed with his wife and, in an ensuing struggle, had been killed to stop him exposing the Duke’s adultery. Another said that the Duke had seduced Sellis’s daughter who, finding herself pregnant, had committed suicide. When Sellis had confronted his employer, the Duke silenced hime to avert a scandal. The third and final theory was that the Duke and his other valet, Neale, were involved in “the grossest and most unnatural immorality”, and that Sellis, having caught them in the act, was murdered on the Duke’s orders. Whatever the truth might be there are occasions when the palace is sleeping that the ghost of Sellis has been seen walking the corridors, a gaping wound across his throat, the sickly sweet smell of fresh blood trailing in his wake.
Just off Pall Mall is Angel Court, a dark passageway probably named after an ancient inn that once stood here. At the top is the Golden Lion, a pub where a ghost of unknown gender is regularly glimpsed in the upstairs bar. Staff clearing up have often seen from the corner of their eyes someone sat at the table to the right of the window. When they look nobody is there, customers have also reported seeing this person, never clearly, and when they look directly the table is empty.
Walking into St James’s Place I pass Spencer House, former ancestral home of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and follow the road until I reach an almost concealed courtyard. The yellow painted building was, for many years of the last century, the home of two spinster sisters, Ann and Harriet Pearson, who were deeply devoted to each other. Ann died in 1858 but Harriet continued to live in the house alone. In November 1864, while visiting Brighton Harriet fell seriously ill. She was brought back to London and nursed by her two nieces, Mrs Coppinger and Miss Emma Pearson, and her nephew’s wife Mrs John Pearson. On December 23rd heavy snow began to fall. Mrs Coppinger and Miss Pearson retired to bed, leaving Mrs Pearson to look after their aunt. They left their door open and the landing gaslamp burning. At about 1am both jerked awake and saw their dead Aunt Ann go past their open door and into the sick room. Mrs Pearson rushed into their room having also seen the dead woman. All three returned to their aunt’s bedside, where she told them she’d just seen her sister. Shortly afterwards she slipped into a coma, dying peacefully at 6pm that evening.
Number 50 Berkeley Square is reputedly the most haunted house in London, its plain Georgian exterior hiding an interior that retains much of its 18th century grandeur. There are several stories relating to this house the first of which comes from an article published in 1907. It is the story of a nobleman who scoffed at the tales of a haunted room and vowed to spend the night there. It was agreed that if he needs assistance he would ring the servants bell to summon his friends. He retired for the night. A little after midnight there was a faint ring followed by a ferocious peeling of the bell. Rushing upstairs, the friends threw open the door, and found their companion, rigid with terror, eyes bulging from their sockets. He was unable to tell them what he had seen and died shortly afterwards.
As a result of its reputation no-one was willing to take on the lease and for many years it remained empty. One night, two sailors on shore leave were seeking a place to stay, and chanced upon the empty house. Breaking in they made their way upstairs and settled in the haunted room. They were woken by the sound of heavy, determined footsteps coming up the stairs. Suddenly the door banged open and a hideous, shapeless, oozing mass began to fill the room. One sailor escaped and returned to the house with a policeman to find his friends corpse impaled on the railings outside.
The ghostly goings on here are not all consigned to the past. In 2001, Julian Wilson, a bookseller with Maggs Brothers, who now occupy the building, was working alone on a Saturday morning in the haunted room which is now used by the accounts department. He saw a strange column of brown mist move quickly across the room and vanish. The same year a cleaner preparing the house for a party, felt the overwhelming sensation that someone, or something was standing behind her. Turning around she found the room empty. Another incident recounts a man walking up the stairs, his glasses were snatched from his hand by something and thrown to the floor.
Many theories have been put forward as to why the house is haunted. The two most popular are that a Mr Du Pre of Wilton Park who owned the house locked up his lunatic brother in one of the attics. The captive was so violent that he could only be fed through a hole, and his groans and cries could be heard in the neighbouring houses. When he died his spirit remained and still haunts the house to this day. The other tale is that a Mr Myers, who was engaged to a society beauty, once owned the house. After furnishing the house in preparation for their wedding he was jilted by his fiancé. He turned into a bitter recluse, locking himself away in the upstairs room and only came out at night to wander the house by flickering candlelight. Whatever the story, unexplained events have happened, and continue to happen at 50 Berkeley Square.
Number 44 Berkeley Square was once described as “the finest terrace house in London”. It was designed in 1742 by William Kent for Lady Isabella Finch, a Maid of Honour to George II’s sister, Princess Amelia. Inside she entertained many luminaries of the day with the proceedings and servants watched over by her devoted major-domo, who cut a dashing figure in his green livery and powdered wig.
In more recent times the Clermont Club took over occupancy of the house and has been its home since 1959. But Lady Finch’s major-domo has chosen to linger on in spirit form and has often been seen in his smart green uniform and handsome periwig flitting up and down the grand staircase keeping a watchful eye on all that goes on in the house today.